Trump might ditch the historic US-Cuba opening for slivers of support in Washington

Strange bedfellows.
Strange bedfellows.
Image: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
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For more than two years, Americans have been freer to travel and do business in Cuba than at any time in the previous five decades. Now, however, the Trump administration is considering restoring the restrictions on travel and trade that president Barack Obama relaxed in 2014. Insiders say the decision might be presented as a defense of human rights in Cuba, but will in reality be an attempt by Trump buy some support for his other Washington battles.

The results of the opening have been striking. Though Cuba remains ostensibly socialist, the increased contact with Americans has helped galvanize the growing ranks of private entrepreneurs there. Airbnb, the American home-rental platform, was one of the first companies to begin doing business in Cuba under the new rules. Since April 2015, its Cuban hosts have collected $40 million in rental payments, the company said (pdf).

Americans have benefited as well, according to a study by Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies to open the island market to US businesses. The study suggests a policy reversal will cost the US some 12,000 jobs and $6 billion over the next four years.

But these arguments may not carry much weight with the Trump administration, which in February initiated a review of the Cuba policy. Multiple sources monitoring the review, including human-rights activists, lobbyists, and Obama-era officials, fear that the White House will reverse the opening-up with Cuba. These sources declined to speak on the record because they hope to continue influencing the policy process.

At an inter-agency meeting in May, these sources say, officials from across the US government discussed their approach to Cuba in a meeting chaired by K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser. Most of the agencies favored maintaining Obama’s more open policy.

The Department of Agriculture tends to back anything that would increase US farm exports; the Department of Commerce takes a similar approach to opening up foreign markets. The Department of Homeland Security wants to keep up its cooperation with the Cuban government on drug interdiction, which the restoration of diplomatic relations made possible. It also wants to maintain Obama’s abolition of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which gave Cubans nearly automatic asylum and complicated immigration enforcement. Since the policy was revoked in January, the number of Cubans trying to reach the US by sea has slowed to a trickle.

The only objecting voices were from inside the White House, particularly the legislative affairs office. That’s because, these sources say, the White House needs the support of two key Florida Republicans: representative Mario Diaz-Balart and senator Marco Rubio, Cuban-Americans who oppose normalized relations with Havana’s politically repressive government.

The New York Times reported in March (paywall) that Diaz-Balart had offered to support the controversial American Health Care Act (AHCA) in exchange for assurances that Trump would roll back the Cuba opening. Days later the Miami New Times and the conservative Daily Caller carried similar stories.

Diaz-Balart has denied these reports, but one lobbyist told Quartz that the congressman has been bragging about his dealmaking to his colleagues. He voted for the AHCA; it passed the House of Representatives in May by just one vote. Diaz-Balart’s office did not respond to our request for comment.

Rubio, a bitter opponent of Trump’s during the Republican presidential primary, nonetheless backed him in the general election. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election—which will hear testimony today from fired FBI director James Comey—Rubio is in a position to be either a help or a hindrance to the White House.

“I’ve spoken to the president of the United States personally on three occasions,” Rubio said in March. “I think without a doubt there will be changes in US-Cuba policy.” He and another senator on the intelligence committee, Tom Cotton, dined with the president on June 6. Rubio’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Proponents of the opening-up with Cuba argue that it has created jobs, one of Trump’s key goals. “If deal-maker president Trump is in charge of our Cuba policy, we will continue to remove arbitrary regulations preventing US companies from doing business in Cuba,” said James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba. “But if two members of Congress are calling the shots, even the most broadly supported policies could be on the chopping block.”

Public comments so far suggest the policy review is focusing on human-rights issues. The Cuban regime still holds political prisoners and limits freedom of speech and assembly. The administration has given a couple of hints that human rights might be used to justify a change in policy, such as a statement from the president on May 20, Cuban Independence Day, that ”[t]he Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human rights, and my Administration is committed to achieving that vision.”

But human-rights activists who work with Cubans believe that while closer relations with the US may have benefitted Cuba’s regime, they have also begun to make life better for its citizens, and that reversing course would not help. They’re also incredulous that an administration that has explicitly said it will stop lecturing other countries on human rights, and which has been friendly towards autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, will now wave the banner of human rights on Cuba policy.

“The Trump administration is zeroing in on human rights, as though a potential roll-back of Cuba regulation is being done in the name of Cuban rights,” said Marguerite Jimenez, who leads Cuba work at the Washington Office on Latin America. “We in the human-rights community are working to get the message out, ‘not in our name.’ There’s absolutely no human-rights ground that is justifiable in rolling back this policy.”

It’s possible that the administration could make only cosmetic changes to the Cuba policy. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the review process, and the National Security Council, which is in charge of the review, hasn’t sent him recommendations as yet.

Ironically, given the investigations into ties between Trump’s presidency and Russia, worsening relations between the US and its island neighbor would be an opening for Vladimir Putin’s regime, which offered the country $4 billion in economic development projects last year.

“The Cold War is long over and Cuba is no longer a threat to the United States,” Williams told Quartz. “If President Trump reverses course with Cuba, it would be a gift to Putin and the Kremlin.”